Is a metzora’ the same as a leper? (Tazria’ & Metzora’)

The upcoming Torah readings (Tazria’ and Metzora’) deal extensively with a medical and dermatological condition called tzårá’at (צרעת), and how it is to be handled (Vayiqra / Leviticus 13 and 14).

From the word itself, not so much information can be gleaned: It seems, perhaps inexplicably, to be related to the Hebrew word for “wasp”, tzir’áh (צרעה), and is based on the noun form (known as pa’élet as qattélet) that is used in Hebrew for sicknesses and symptoms. The same form is familiar to Hebrew speakers from a long list of unpleasant physical conditions, such as influenza (shappá’at, שפעת), based on the root for abundance (shéfa’, שפע), influence (hashpa’áh, השפעה) … and in this case apparently an abundance of congestion; diabetes (sakkéret, סכרת), from sukár (סוכר), sugar; psoriasis (sappáhat, ספחת), another biblical name with an unclear connection to its root – safah meaning to join or add on to something; a fever (qaddáhat, קדחת), based on a root indicating a piercing combination of heat and pressure; a fungal infection (pattéret, פטרת), from the word for mushroom, pitriyáh (פטריה) ; a runny nose (nazzélet, נזלת),  based on the root involving flowing and liquid; or an inflammation (dalléqet, דלקת), related to the words meaning to ignite (lehadlíq) and fuel for burning (déleq).

From several occurrences in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), including in the readings at hand, we see that tzårá’at is generally a temporary condition – Vayiqra / Leviticus 14 addresses the steps taken for spiritual and physical purification after a bout has passed, and both Moses’ sister Miriam (BaMidbar / Numbers 12) and the Aramaean military commander Na’aman (Melakhim B’ / II Kings 5) had cases of tzårá’at that went away (through divine intervention, albeit). It is characterized by deep white patches in the skin, called “bahéret” (בהרת) in Vayiqra / Leviticus 13:2-4, another symptom word like the qattélet forms above, based on the word bahīr (בהיר) meaning “bright”. Both Miriam and, in another incident of miraculously temporary tzårá’at, Moses’ hand (Shemot / Exodus 4:6-7) turn white, and perhaps scaly or rough, becoming “metzorá’at ka-shåleg” (מְצֹרַעַת כַּשָּׁלֶג), “afflicted with tzårá’at like snow”.

Some see a hint that tzårá’at consumes the victim’s flesh, like leprosy, in the enigmatic verse appearing during Miriam’s bout with the disease: “Please don’t be like a cadaver whose flesh is half-eaten when he comes out from his mother’s womb!” (BeMidbar / Numbers 12:12) But this verse is put in the mouth of Aharon as he is urging Moses to take action on their sister’s behalf, and Moses immediately screams out an urgent prayer for Miriam’s recovery. The description, though vivid and seemingly somewhat awkward, has nothing to do with Miriam’s condition. Perhaps it was intended as a scathing metaphor for someone useless and horribly disappointing.

In short, there seems to be very little basis for the common understanding, which equates tzårá’at with “leprosy” (now called Hansen’s Disease), and on the basis of which many are led to translate the phrase mentioned above as “leprous like snow” or “snow-white with leprosy”. (Some translations do avoid equating tzårá’at with leprosy, however.) The spacious Beit Hansen compound in southern Jerusalem, now housing cultural activities, an inviting café and an alternative pub, was for many years a closed, foreboding walled compound known as Beit ha-Metzora’im, with the intended meaning of the “House of the Lepers” or – more properly but no less dubious in its Hebrew terminology – Beit ha-Holim la-Metzora’im, “The Lepers’ Hospital”. In 1948 the institute was transferred from the monastic order that ran it to the Health Ministry and officially received the name Beit ha-Holim Hansen, Hansen Hospital, appearing on the sign at its entrance until the hospital’s closure only a few years ago.

Blame for the confusion is generally given to the Septuagint, the Hellenistic Greek translation of the Tanakh began in Alexandria in the 3rd century BCE, which translated tzårá’at as ‘aphē lépras (‘αφή λέπρας), “a plague of leprosy”. Some posit that around the time of this translation, or in any event at some point early on in the Greco-Roman period, is when actual leprosy, Hansen’s Disease, came to Israel, and that the lepers mentioned in the New Testament indeed suffered from Hansen’s Disease.

The source of the confusion – Septuagint verse translating tzara’at as “a plague of leprosy”

The Tafsir Rasag, Rabbeinu Sa’adia Ga’on’s 9th century CE version of the Torah in Arabic written in Hebrew letters, translates tzårá’at as báras (ברץ برص), and calls a metzorá’ an ábras (أبرص אברץ). The same terms are used in more modern Arabic translations of the Bible as well. Intriguingly, these terms have nothing to do with leprosy. In current usage, baras is generally understood to be a word meaning albinism. However, there are several Arabic words for albinism, including máhaq مهق and báhaq بهق, the latter being akin to Hebrew words for albinism or whiteness of the skin, sometimes as a symptom of an illness (as in the term bahéqet בהקת), but generally simply meaning albinism (as in bóhaq בהק, a more neutral term), and related to a Hebrew verb meaning to be gleaming or very white, båháq בהק. In Vayiqra / Leviticus 13:39 (Tazria’), the word bóhaq is used for a condition of benign white splotches on the skin that does not affect one’s state of taharah or tum’ah (spiritual purity or impurity), and is therefore considered to be tåhōr (טהור), “ritually pure”. The common word for albinism in Mishnaic and Israeli Hebrew today is lavqånūt (לבקנות), based on a blend of the Greek word for white, levkós (λευκός), with the Hebrew word for white, låvån (לבן).

The existence of several Arabic words now referring to albinism, likely means that in the past they referred to several different phenomena, perhaps one of them being an illness, like the biblical tzårá’at. Sa’adia and others apparently believed báras to be a white-skin illness, and identified this illness with tzårá’at.

In any event, Sa’adia – and modern Arabic translators – avoided using judhām (جذام) and majdhūm (مجذوم), the terms commonly accepted for leprosy and leper (Hansen’s Disease), most likely since this word is related to words like “to cut off (leaving a stump)” (jádhama جذم), “stump” (jidhm جذم), and “a person lacking a limb or part of a limb” (ájdham أجذم), thus referring to the aspect of leprosy that clearly distinguishes it from biblical tzårá’at, which was – at least primarily – an affliction of the skin, not involving lost limbs. The same root is also known in Hebrew, as in the words gådám (גדם), “to cut off (leaving a stump)”, gédem (גדם), “a stump”, and giddém (גידם), meaning – like Arabic ájdham – “someone who is lacking a limb or a part thereof”.

There used to be a street in Jerusalem, Rehōv ha-Giddém, Ha-Giddem Street, in honor of Yosef Trumpeldor, until it was decided a few years ago that renaming it “Trumpeldor Street” would be more respectful than using his nickname. Trumpeldor was an early Zionist hero who died in a skirmish in northern Israel a century ago, but first gained fame as a Russian war hero and patriotic subject of the Czar. (The monarch in question, Nikolai II, was responsible for atrocities against Jewish communities in his realm, and ultimately lost his throne and life in the Revolution.) Trumpeldor was the most decorated Jewish soldier in the Russian Empire at the time, and lost an arm fighting for Russia against the Japanese over Manchuria, but insisted on completing his military service, declaring “I still have another arm to give to the Motherland.” He later moved to Israel, then still part of the Ottoman Empire, to help build the Jewish national home. As he lay dying a few years later in British Mandate Palestine-Eretz Yisra’el, he translated his extreme sense of national sacrifice into the Hebrew language, with his famous last words: “Tōv lamūt be’ád artzénu” (טוב למות בעד ארצנו), “It is good to die for our country”.

(For better or for worse, most Israelis probably can’t hear Trumpeldor’s dying words without the catchy, sarcastic protest song rendition from the 1987 movie Late Summer Blues coming to mind…)

And to end on a positive note, a food tip related to the parashot: The purification ritual described in Vayiqra / Leviticus 14 involves a scarlet-died piece of wool, some cedar wood and hyssop (ezōv in Hebrew) – a herb which Rabbeinu Sa’adia Ga’on identifies as צעתר, zá’atar. Now zá’atar is used mostly in a ground herb mix eaten with olive oil, and has numerous other uses, such as being sprinkled onto pizzas in Israel. Rambam notes that in his day ezōv was most often added into cooked dishes, though its Greek-Italian cousin oregano generally fills that role today. Bete’avón.

Za’atar mix from the Tachona shel Shachar shop on Agrippas St., Jerusalem.
About the Author
Daniel Kennemer is the founder of the Mount Carmel Arabic Immersion and the Jethro's Tent Initiative for Biblical Hebrew. He studied Archaeology and Geography at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
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